Science at the Environmental Protection Agency (7-26-00)
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is responsible for protecting
environmental health and safety through their regulatory, enforcement,
and remediation authority. Ideally, these functions are based upon
"sound science" research carried out by the agency and other non-related
facilities. However, over the years the perception has developed
that EPA's policies lack a strong scientific foundation. In order
to better understand why the agency has fallen short, the National Research
Council has performed an assessment of EPA's Office of Research and Development
and has suggested several ways the agency could improve.
Most Recent Action
Following the release of the National Research Council's (NRC)
report entitled Strengthening Science at the U.S. Environmental Protection
Agency: Research Management and Peer Review Practices, the House
Science Subcommittee on Energy and Environment held a hearing
on July13, 2000 to discuss the report. The witnesses included Dr.
David Morrison of the report's committee, and Dr. Robert Huggett, the former
Assistant Administrator of EPA's Office of Research and Development (ORD).
The committee recommended the creation of a high-level administration position
to coordinate and oversee all scientific activities in the agency.
The administrator would be responsible for all aspects of the transfer
of sound scientific and technical information into the agency's proposed
policies or regulations. The report also details several ways the
ORD could better maintain research program continuity, enhance research
leadership and strengthen scientific communication in the agency and between
it and outside entities. The report stressed the need for a peer-review
policy to promote separation, objectivity, and independence between the
reviewer and the project decision-maker. The committee applauded
the advancements EPA has made in the past five years and supported the
continued attention to balancing core and applied research.
Other reports analyzing EPA practices have been issued by NRC in the
past, as well as by Resources for the Future,
EPA's Science Advisory Board (SAB),
and the General Accounting Office to name
a few. The EPA's main mission is to protect human health and the
environment, a goal primarily accomplished through its regulatory authority.
Recent debates about climate change have challenged whether EPA has the
right to regulate carbon dioxide as a pollutant without Senate ratification
of the Kyoto Protocol. More information about climate change and
EPA's role is available on the AGI
Subcommittee on Energy and Environment
July 13, 2000
Hearing on the findings of the National Research Council (NRC) findings
on strengthening science at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
The Bottom Line
Congress and EPA requested a study to examine the structure and management
of EPA's research program, as well as its peer review practices.
The hearing addressed the report provided by the National Research Council
(NRC), a division of the National Academies. The report mainly recommended
the formation of several new positions that would strengthen coordination
between EPA's research programs and policy makers. Subcommittee chairman
Ken Calvert (R-CA) informally proposed transferring the science and research
aspects of EPA to a new agency that would report its findings to EPA, but
this proposal was opposed by everyone else who spoke at the hearing.
The witnesses and Rep. Vernon Ehlers (R-MI), previously a research physicist
before joining Congress, strongly advocated the involvement of scientists
in at all stages of environmental policy formation.
|Ken Calvert (R-CA), Chairman
Vernon Ehlers (R-MI)
|Jerry Costello (D-IL), Ranking Member
Bob Etheridge (D-NC)
Joe Baca (D-CA)
Calvert opened the hearing with a summary of the NRC's report.
He justified the need for such a report by citing a wide-spread perception
that the EPA's lack of attention to sound science has caused the the agency
to formulate bad policies. The example he cited was the agency's
mandatory requirement that gasoline be oxygenated with MTBE, only to discover
later that the additive pollutes ground water. Calvert suggested
that to better shield research from politics, it might be necessary to
take the science and research offices out of EPA.
Dr. David L. Morrison, Member of the NRC Committee on Research and
Peer Review in EPA, Adjunct Professor at North
Carolina State University
Dr. Robert J. Huggett, Vice President for Research and Graduate Studies
of Michigan State University, former
Assistant Administrator, Office of Research
and Development, U.S. Environmental Protection
Morrison's testimony covered the methods of the study and some of the
history of EPA and the criticism aimed at it. The witness addressed
the key conclusions of the report. The main recommendation is for
the creation of a high-level administrative position to coordinate and
oversee all scientific activities in the agency. This new deputy
administrator for science and technology would be responsible for all aspects
of the transfer of sound scientific and technical information into the
agency's proposed policies or regulations. Regarding the problem
of integrating science research to support the agency's mission, Morrison
said that it is just as important for EPA's regulations to be scientifically
sound as it is for them to be legal.
Other conclusions included:
Huggett admitted that he had requested this study during his term as Assistant
Administrator for Research and Development, a position he claimed to be
"the worst job that anyone can possibly have" since it lacks the power
to change anything about EPA's practices. Although he repeated many
of the recommendations cited by the first witness, he stressed that current
EPA law states that permanent research employees cannot interact with research
contractors. Huggett advocating changing this partially to improve the
caliber of budding scientists attracted through the graduate and postdoctoral
programs, but also to increase the agency's committment to sound science.
He suggested that the reorganization that took place in 1995 with the National
Environmental Performance Partnership System, began successful changes
that need to be continued. Other report conclusions he mentioned
to better maintain program and leadership consistency, and to try to raise
the status of the appointment closer to the prestigiousness of running
the NSF or NIH, the assistant administrator for research and development
(ORD) would be converted to a presidentially-appointed 6 year term,
to empower lower management levels to make research program decisions and
to be accountable for them,
to further enhance research leadership by creating full time positions
similar to endowed academic research chairs in ORD's national laboratories,
to expand EPA's graduate fellowship and postdoctoral programs, and
to change the peer-review policy to promote separation, objectivity, and
independence between reviewers and project decision-makers.
Both witnesses strongly disagreed with Calvert's suggestion that EPA's
research offices would better influence policy as a separate agency.
Huggert argued that there is no amount of politics that can change true
science, while Morrison stated that it would only serve to weaken EPA's
science basis and credibility over time. Rep. Vernon Ehlers (R-MI)
agreed that the labs cannot be extracted from the agency and stated that
the way science is used in making legislation needs to be changed.
Instead of bringing it in at the end as justification, science and researchers
need to be involved at the earliest stages and to exercise their "clout."
balancing core and applied research so that ORD's research does not become
too narrow, political, or outdated,
including other organization's research both nationally and abroad, including
universities, industry, and governmental facilities, and
increasing public outreach and participation to inform the public of EPA's
research and the science behind its policies.
The subject of risk management was raised with the chairman's question
of how to bring science and policy closer together. Morrison discussed
the problems with communicating scientific uncertainty to the public, or
even to the policy makers who want to make regulations. Often, he
said, those regulations unreasonably aim at reducing risk down to zero,
a near impossibility that results in uneconomical cost.
Sources: General Accounting Office, Washington Post, Federation
of American Scientists, EEnews and hearing testimony.
Please send any comments or requests for information to the AGI Government
Affairs Program at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Contributed by 2000 AGI/AIPG Geoscience Policy Intern Audrey Slesinger
Posted July 26, 2000